“The future success of an American evangelical political philosophy depends on whether it is willing to affirm the providentially blessed reality of the American experiment in ordered liberty while successfully navigating the treacherous land mines of civil religion.”–John Bolt: Abraham Kuyper and the Search for an Evangelical Public Theology a chapter in Budziszewski’s, “Evangelicals in the Public Square”
I know many of the progressive type evangelicals out there or even the not so progressive types but rather the more moderate types but surely not the conservative types (it’s disconcerting to start labelling positions) would baulk at this statement (though the conservatives would be misunderstanding what Bolt is saying). For some time there have been admonitions within the evangelical Christian community, probably first by the distinguished Mark Noll, George Marsden and Nathan Hatch, that America really has no right to claim providential special status among the nations. As a matter of fact, America is not the first to do so anyway. Regardless, Stephan Walt explains what it looks like to do so here.
God Is on Our Side.
A crucial component of American exceptionalism is the belief that the United States has a divinely ordained mission to lead the rest of the world. Ronald Reagan told audiences that there was “some divine plan” that had placed America here, and once quoted Pope Pius XII saying, “Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.” Bush offered a similar view in 2004, saying, “We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.” The same idea was expressed, albeit less nobly, in Otto von Bismarck’s alleged quip that “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States.”
Confidence is a valuable commodity for any country. But when a nation starts to think it enjoys the mandate of heaven and becomes convinced that it cannot fail or be led astray by scoundrels or incompetents, then reality is likely to deliver a swift rebuke. Ancient Athens, Napoleonic France, imperial Japan, and countless other countries have succumbed to this sort of hubris, and nearly always with catastrophic results.
Despite America’s many successes, the country is hardly immune from setbacks, follies, and boneheaded blunders. If you have any doubts about that, just reflect on how a decade of ill-advised tax cuts, two costly and unsuccessful wars, and a financial meltdown driven mostly by greed and corruption have managed to squander the privileged position the United States enjoyed at the end of the 20th century. Instead of assuming that God is on their side, perhaps Americans should heed Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that our greatest concern should be ‘whether we are on God’s side.'”
Over all, I agree with Walt, AS STATED SUCH, especially his first paragraph and the last line of his last paragraph. The problem though, that I have, is twofold.
A. The Christian understanding of providence.
B. Given the nature of providence, Walt’s way of describing the matter is not entirely accurate.
Here’s what I mean. Providence, as I understand it, is simply God working in the world for greater good purposes or God’s guidance in the human affairs toward an eschatological teleos–God guiding humans toward a certain destiny. Christians usually think of “the Hand of Providence.” Now, I haven’t listened to much of CCM in a long time but the only song that I know of that speaks explicitly of providence was written by Michael W. Smith called, “The Hand of Providence” back in the early 90’s.
Having said that, there is nothing heretical about America claiming God’s guidance at her founding or even as she presently stands. America can claim God’s guidance just as any other country would like. The problem is when we make claims of SPECIAL STATUS. A status that says America was chosen like the nation of Israel in biblical times.
Allow me to be a little more specific. I want to tell you what I am NOT saying and what I AM saying. When I speak of about America making a claim of guidance like any other country, I am NOT saying that God approves of every country’s political system. What I AM saying is that God has a purpose for every country. In the case of America, I do think that ON BALANCE democracy is better than most of what we have out there especially against any country that has a political regime that is monistic and totalitarian. Why? Because democracy is the antithesis of monism and totalitarianism. One could say that any type of monism or totalitarianism is essentially idolatry. The state or dictator is supreme. It is ultimate. It is expansive taking over areas that are the proper God-given domain of other individuals or institutions and even God himself. Built into democracy, as imperfect as it is (because of what can result from it) is that people have the freedom to live and flourish responsibly.
Having stated that, claiming providence should be said with humility and taken with the utmost seriousness realizing that one has a God-given responsibility. As Neuhaus says:
Ideals do not make their way in history except they be carried by persons and institutions. The carriers inescapably fall short of the ideals to which they witness. This is most dramatically true of the Church as the bearer of the Gospel. It is also true in the realm of social and political change. Although it is the primary bearer of the democratic ideal today, America is far from having fully actualized that ideal in its own life. To say that America has a singular responsibility in this world-historical moment does not mean that America is God’s chosen nation, as for instance, Israel was chosen by God. God has made no special covenant with America as such. God’s convenant is with his creation, with Israel, and with his Church. However, because America is a large and influential part of his creation, because America is the home of most of the heirs of Israel of old, and because this is a land in which his Church is vibrantly free to live and proclaim the Gospel to the world, we believe that America has a peculiar place in God’s promises and purposes. This is not a statement of nationalistic hubris but an acknowledgment that we bear a particular and grave responsibility. Beyond this, we are also mindful that this is the nation for which we are most immediately accountable.”
To conclude, there is no contradiction between claiming providence and Christian theology. You would think, that if America was a “world-historical moment” that Christians would take their democracy and freedom and civic duty just a tad bit more seriously.